Immediately following his switch to Sevilla, Yevhen Konoplyanka staunchly explained why he’d chosen to move to the current Europa League holders over a host of English Premier League clubs who were interested.
“If I was two-and-a-half metres tall and didn’t know how to control a ball then I may have gone to England, but here [in Spain], the football’s more technical. It’s the best,” he said.
It’s hard to argue with his decision. After all, Konoplyanka is a magician with the ball at his feet. And in one of Sevilla’s biggest games of the season, against Real Madrid, he picked the perfect occasion to show precisely that. Danilo, Madrid’s right-back, was his hapless victim, in a match where Konoplyanka completely mesmerised and bamboozled the Brazilian.
Using his awesome blend of razor sharp ball control, changes of pace, lightning sharp agility to rapidly change direction and speed of thought the Ukrainian international proved a far too explosive and unpredictable opponent for Danilo to come to grips with.
Konoplyanka never let him settle, he always threw up something different whenever he engaged in 1v1 duels with the former FC Porto starlet. He went around the outside, tore him apart when cutting inside, while he even went over him and straight through him. Some would term his style as old-fashioned, which is a reasonable suggestion, for the supremely confident Konoplyanka backed himself every time to run at his man, and beat him. More often than not, he did so too. His direct approach, parlayed with the sheer speed at which he executes everything unsurprisingly saw him successfully able to wreak havoc down the left.
Sid Lowe described Konoplyanka’s dominance on the night brilliantly, saying: “The olés were ringing round the Pizjuán and Yevhen Konoplyanka was running rings round everyone, turning in the kind of display that was so good it was funny, turning people inside out and back to front.”
Being suitably assisted by his fullback, Benoit Tremoulinas, Konoplyanka heaped additional grief on Danilo, who must be given some sympathy, as Isco often failed to track the Sevilla left-back, leaving Danilo isolated and forced to contend with 2v1 scenarios with far too much regularity.
Sevilla’s exciting pairing on the left, who are quickly developing a notable rapport with one another as the season progresses, displayed yet again what a damaging partnership they can be. They’re full of pace and energy, but more than that, they also communicate, support and cover for each other, adding a much needed layer of balance. The famously meticulous Sevilla manager, Unai Emery, would surely love seeing this.
There were plenty of prominent examples where Konoplyanka would usher his fullback to move into the space he’d created by cleverly cutting infield. As a consequence, with Danilo occupied by Konoplyanka and Isco usually not working back, Tremoulinas had oceans of room to surge into.
To touch on the former Dnipro sensation’s movement again, which is an area of his armoury that can tend to get overlooked in the wake of his tremendous talent on the ball, it’s still an equally important weapon for him.
His knack of recognising little pockets of space in between defenders and midfielders was used very effectively against Los Merengues. He constantly exploited gaps in between the lines, just to the left of Danilo, to receive possession. These little movements infield often caught Danilo off-guard, meaning he already started behind the eight ball whenever Konoplyanka obtained possession. Playing catch up against Konoplyanka is certainly not something any defender wants to do, and on many occasions throughout Danilo suffered for losing his man.
With the score locked at 1-1, Konoplyanka smartly drifted in from the flank to pick up possession in the 61st minute, without Danilo anywhere near him. Upon inheriting the ball he quickly turned and charged at the Madrid defence from this lethal central position. Casemiro shuffled over from his defensive midfield post, but Konoplyanka whizzed past him like he wasn’t there courtesy of a jink. Now at the edge of the box, all that confronted him was a sea of Madrid defenders. Not to worry for Konoplyanka, though, as he played a sublime one-two with Ciro Immobile to breach the Madrid backline. While he admitted after the game his desire was to shoot once getting on the end of Immobile’s return ball, he had to look elsewhere. “In the build-up to our second goal, Banega screamed louder than the fans,” he said, “so I had no choice but to pass to him! Still, I’ll try to be the one who scores next time.”
Thankfully for his team and Ever Banega, he made the right decision and played a sumptuous cut-back to his Argentine colleague to give the Andalusians the lead.
Having already assisted Sevilla’s first goal with a looping corner that fell to Immobile, this passage further depicted what an invaluable asset he is for Unai Emery’s outfit.
By the numbers, Konoplyanka’s impact in Sevilla’s spectacular 3-2 triumph also stacked up splendidly. On top of supplying those previously noted two assists, he made four key passes, completed a whopping six successful dribbles, had three shots and even chipped in with four interceptions.
It’s been refreshing to see Sevilla have been patient with their star signing and given him every chance to settle into life in Spain and get fully integrated into Emery’s squad, instead of thrusting him into the spotlight from the outset.
“The idea was to familiarise him with our concepts, requirements and players. Now he’s developing an understanding with [Benoit] Tremoulinas down the left and is showing more aggression defensively,” Emery explained.
To get an insight into the extraordinary lengths the club have gone to in order to help him adapt, look no further than Nick Dorrington’s fine piece on the topic. Nick explains how, on top of acquiring Dmitri Cheryshev in a coaching role, father of Real Madrid’s Denis, they’ve also made further steps to ensure his adjustment is as smooth as possible.
“They brought in Juan Candau, a fitness coach with a solid grasp of Russian following his two years at CSKA Moscow, and also signed promising Ukrainian forward Maryan Shved from Karpaty Lviv,” he said.
“While Cheryshev and Candau helped Konoplyanka — who spoke not a word of Spanish or English upon his arrival in Seville — through the language barrier in training, Shved became his socialising partner and confidant.”
Konoplyanka even recently admitted things haven’t easy since leaving Dnipro. “I am adapting, slowly, slowly,” he insisted.
“Things will be much better when I can understand perfectly what my teammates are saying to me in Spanish, but I am already in a position to compete. There is a lot of competition in the squad, but I’m ready.”
Even though the club has purposefully chosen to adopt a patient approach with Konoplyanka, it’s quickly become apparent how crucial he’ll be for Sevilla this season. He could even be their key man, such is his talent.
Having already mustered up an impressive two goals and three assists from just three league starts and six sub appearances, Konoplyanka’s unquestionably appearing like one of the best signings of the season. Indeed another masterstroke from Sevilla’s transfer mastermind, Monchi, who signed him on a free transfer.
Although it’s taken a lot of time and effort from Sevilla to ensure Konoplyanka’s integration, all their hard work now appears completely justified and to be well and truly paying off.
After all, there’s not too many players in the world who can change a game in an instant quite like he can.
About the author – Edward Stratmann
Edward Stratmann writes regularly about the on-field aspects of the game, with a particular focus on tactics and analysis. In addition to featuring on These Football Times, Inside Spanish Football, Anfield Index, Just Football, The Eagles Beak, Think Football Ideas and JuveFC, you can also find Edward’s work at Licence to Roam, a football blog he started with his brother in 2013.